Wisconsin wines: Fast-growing industry ready for global exposure?

wollersheim2Seems like everybody makes predictions during this time of year. We assign odds to football championships and celebrity romances. We speculate which quirks and changes will turn into trends or cultural shifts.

Those who guess right become experts and visionaries. Those who guess wrong risk their credibility. So it pays to have a clear crystal ball, sense of direction or accurate data sheets before painting in broad strokes.

A recent essay about wine at Salon.com, the online news site with millions of visitors per month, begins with the headline “Four Unexpected Wine Regions Worth Visiting: Discover new varietals from these lesser-known wine regions.”

Accolades go to Bolivia, Japan, Morocco and … wait for it … Wisconsin.

“The Dairy State is home to five distinct wine regions with 45 wineries that create unique blends with orchard fruits like cranberries and apples,” the article observes. “Which makes sense, because what pairs better with cheese than wine?”

I am a lover of all things Wisconsin but find this global positioning absolutely astounding. Our wines, with rare exception, are not known for sweeping international or national award competitions.

The no-byline Salon article is a “sponsored post,” which is code for “advertorial” to promote specific events or businesses. Infiniti (as in the auto brand) is the sponsor.

“This article is a joke,” one piece of Salon feedback notes. “A list of serious (quality), lesser-known wine-producing areas of interest might include Mendocino County, Calif.; Loire Valley, France; Rioja, Spain; and Marlborough, New Zealand.”

Another Salon reader gives a thumb’s up to Wisconsin and says the best wineries operate along the Niagara Escarpment. “Climate change puts Wisconsin in a good position for wine in the future,” the writer predicts. “People may snigger now; they won’t in 10 years.”

Climate challenges Wisconsin’s attempts to produce excellent wine from locally grown grapes, but researchers at the University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota and elsewhere are working to create and improve cold-hardy varietals, such as Marquette and Frontenac.

“Growing grapes will never be easy in Wisconsin,” notes Mark Ganchiff, publisher of the online Midwest Wine Press (midwestwinepress.com), yet the number of acres under cultivation keeps increasing.

Mark, whose publication monitors the wine industry in 11 states, says Wisconsin’s is among the fastest growing nationwide. The state had an 18 percent increase in federal winery licenses from 2012 to 2013.

This happens “despite distribution laws that work against the smaller Wisconsin wineries” by making retail sales difficult. Almost one-third of all Wisconsin wines bottled for sale come from the larger Wollersheim Winery, Prairie du Sac.

“One of the reasons the Wisconsin wine industry is growing is an improvement in wine quality,” Mark says. “I think the state’s cheese-making expertise has carried over into wine. With either cheese or wine, good sanitation is key” during the fermentation process.

He considers Wisconsin wineries “some of the cleanest, most well-run operations in the Midwest” but notes “a shortage of locally grown wine grapes.”

California native Paul Santoriello says Wisconsin wines “get kicked around a lot and tossed into the back seat. We are not known for our grape wines. People want sweet wines from us,” made with Wisconsin-grown fruits.

Paul is the winemaker at Door Peninsula Winery, Sturgeon Bay, and moved here 10 years ago to get a winemaking experience that would differ from his home state. “It opened up my eyes to the industry,” he says. “I’m less of a wine snob and more open to wines with more flavors” besides grapes.

He says the generic wine industry “has worked to confuse the consumer” into believing a wine is not of good quality unless it is made with grapes. In spring, he hopes to introduce one or more dry wines made with fruit other than grapes.

This experimentation blends “old and new world ideas,” but the biggest challenge is “to make a good-quality product consistently” because of climate, grape, soil and pest variables, especially as wine is made in small batches.

In Mount Horeb, Alwyn Fitzgerald of Fisher King Winery says his goal is to make almost all of his products with Wisconsin-grown grapes. Fisher King opened in 2011, and its most recent achievement was a 2013 American Wine Society gold medal for its 2012 Marquette, grown locally.

That’s one of many examples of how Wisconsin is boosting its wine profile in quiet ways.

“Wisconsin residents are very supportive of local wine, and they drink the entire harvest every year,” says the Midwest Wine Press publisher. “People in Wisconsin appreciate good, local wine and they are very open minded about trying wines made from the newer, cold-hardy grapes.”

Time will tell whether they will outnumber the many who are unapologetic fans of the sweet and fruity Wisconsin wines that the average wine critic ignores.

Winter winery events in Wisconsin include:

Port Wine Celebration, Jan. 25, Wollersheim Winery, Prairie du Sac. Music, samplings and port talk. Free admission. wollersheim.com, 608-643-6515

Winter Wine and Cherry Fest, Feb. 1, Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery, Fish Creek. Expect sleigh rides, wine-glass painting and a cherry pit spitting contest. Free admission. orchardcountry.com, 920-868-3479

Cheese Night, Feb. 1, Kerrigan Brothers Winery, Neenah. Sample wine, cheese and sweets. $15 per person. kerriganbrothers.com, 920-788-1423

Wine and Chocolate Obsession, Feb. 15, Northleaf Winery, Milton. Guided pairings of wines and artisan chocolates. $20 per couple. northleafwinery.com, 608-580-0575

Frozen Tundra Wine Festival, Feb. 22, Parallel 44 Winery, Kewaunee. The outdoor festival is in its fifth year. $12 per person. parallel44.com, 920-388-4400

Winery Open House, March 1-2, Wollersheim Winery. Tours and grapevine pruning, bottling and cooking demos. Free admission. wollersheim.com, 608-643-6515

Winery Open House, March 15-16, Cedar Creek Winery, Cedarburg. Grapevine pruning and cooking demos. Free admission. cedarcreekwinery.com, 262-377-8020

For a list of businesses that make wine with 75 percent or more grapes grown in Wisconsin, consult the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association at wigrapes.org.

Another resource is the Wisconsin Winery Association: wiswine.com, 877-297-2827.